Friday, December 21, 2012

In My Family We Cared

“I care. I care about it all. It takes too much energy not to care... The why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents.  The how is what must command the living. Which is why I have lately become an insurgent again.”  (Lorraine Hansberry, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window)

The words you just heard were written by the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.  They are also the epitaph on her tombstone.  Lorraine lived the last years of her life in my home town of Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and was a close friend of my family’s.  I visit her grave quite frequently, not only out of respect for her but also because it’s quite close to my parents’ grave, in the town’s little cemetery wedged between the public library and the high school.   I guess at some level I must find it comforting to imagine that they might occasionally interrupt their eternal rest to share a cup of coffee and chat about politics, theater, and literature, the way I remember them doing when I was a child.
In my family we were insurgents.  We were radicals.  We were intellectuals, outsiders, and sometimes outcasts.  Indeed, in the case of my maternal grandparents, we were revolutionaries.  My grandfather, a proud participant in the Russian Revolution of 1905, left Russia and came to New York in 1910.  He left behind him pogroms, persecution, and a notice to serve in the Czar’s army.   He also left behind him the religious observance that in his mind was inextricably linked to the Old World and its subjugation of the Jewish people.  Forever passionate about their Jewishness and forever equally passionate in their rejection of orthodoxy, my grandparents raised my mother and my aunt in a militantly secular, Yiddish-speaking, ultra-leftist enclave in the Bronx.
I am less clear about what caused traditional religious observance to lose its meaning for my father.  What I do know is that when, at the age of 19, he lost his father, he informed his mother that when the year of mourning was complete, he planned never to go to schul again – and, with the exception of the occasional wedding or funeral in our extended family, he never did.
When I try to tell people about the experience of growing up in a family like mine, I am often asked to explain what we did believe in.   Certainly our Jewish identity and our Jewish heritage were important in defining who we were.  Beyond that, it may surprise you to hear that my family was, in our own way, profoundly spiritual.  With no rule book to guide us, no congregation to enfold us, no ready answers, and no short cuts permitted, my brother and I were each expected to find, and to listen to, our inner voice, and to conduct ourselves according to the highest moral standard at all times.  In my family we believed in humanity’s possibilities.  In the words of Lorraine’s character, we cared.  We cared about it all, and we believed that the how of our being here should command us. 
In my family, we were different.  My parents refused to be pigeon-holed, and they refused to live their lives within the parameters of anyone’s narrow categories.   As a result of my upbringing, I am unusually comfortable in the lush, gray area of ambiguity and questions – perhaps I’m more comfortable there than I am in the harsh bright light of definitions and answers.   To me, caring about it all requires being open to other people’s ways of living their lives.
It’s noteworthy that many of the speakers in this term’s Tuesday morning series remembered something about how their families fought.  The worst family fights I remember took place when one of us showed some vestige of prejudice, or in some other way failed to live according to our family’s principles.  Hypocrisy was perhaps considered the deepest failing in my family, and when any of us was guilty of it we could count on the others reading us the riot act (and probably not very gently.)  In fact I now count upon my adult son to do the same for me.
I want to share with you another reading that had a special meaning in my family.  Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” was my father’s favorite poem, and had he lived to be there, he was planning to read it at Chris’s and my wedding.

Dover Beach
Matthew Arnold
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

A poem as dark as “Dover Beach” might seem an odd choice for a benediction for a young couple.  But I know why my father loved that poem and why he chose it for that occasion.  To him, the poem says that even when faith abandons us – whether in a brief crisis or for a lifetime of searching – we can find sustenance, strength, and meaning in our human connections.   Yes, we are here as on a darkling plain, but if we are true to one another, we are not alone.  And so I will close by saying to all of you: let us care about it all.  Let us be commanded by the how of being here.   Let us true to one another.
Speaker ~ Nina Davis-Millis, Co-Head, Acquisitions, Metadata, and Enterprise Systems, MIT Libraries